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A rib, wrapped foldable antenna
A rib, wrapped foldable antenna

Qualifying space antennas for orbit

Project Case Study: Oxford Space Systems in collaboration with the University of Surrey

How SPRINT and the University of Surrey have helped Oxford Space Systems (OSS) to commercialise a new generation of deployable antennas and structures for the global space industry

Oxford Space Systems (OSS) is a venture capital-backed, award-winning space technology business. OSS is pioneering the development of a new generation of deployable antennas and structures that are lighter, less complex and lower cost than those in current commercial demand.

Based at the UK’s Harwell Space Cluster, the rapidly growing team contains a diverse range of world-class expertise in the fields of radio frequency (RF), aerospace, mechanical, electrical/electronic, and thermal engineering for the space environment.

First in-orbit demonstration for AstroTube™ Boom

OSS previously collaborated with the University of Surrey on the Surrey Space Centre AlSat-Nano space mission. This mission was a joint endeavour by the UK and Algeria to build and operate a 3U CubeSat. The project was designed to provide training to Algerian students, making use of UK engineering and experience.

The CubeSat was designed and built by the Surrey Space Centre (SSC) and hosts three UK payloads – including a deployable boom from OSS – with operations run by the Algerian Space Agency (ASAL).

The mission provided the first in-orbit demonstration of OSS’s AstroTube™ boom technology. This mission provided heritage for the boom, a crucial element within the space industry for securing commercial contracts. On the back of this mission, OSS has negotiated approximately £7 million of export contracts across the US, Europe and Israel, plus further enquiries from NASA and Asia, for derivatives of its AstroTube™ boom and antenna systems, based on its proprietary flexible composites.

As part of the mission, this OSS boom benefited from a hardware qualification campaign as part of the spacecraft Engineering Verification Test (EVT). OSS have also partnered with Sen, a specialist in streaming real-time videos from space, to provide camera deployment booms for high-resolution video from orbit.

As a direct result of the mission, Surrey Space Centre has also procured hardware from OSS for the RemoveDebris mission (2013–2018), where a 1.5m AstroTube™ was used to deploy a harpoon target. The harpoon was fired at 20m p/s, successfully penetrating the target, made of satellite panel material.

Developing next generation antennas for the global space sector

Under the SPRINT programme, OSS has worked with the University of Surrey to commercialise a new generation of deployable antennas and structures.

This SPRINT activity was aimed at helping OSS achieve its vision of ‘becoming the global leader in deployable antennas for space’.

The SPRINT project also aimed to subject OSS’ new designs to various mechanical and thermal tests that simulate the space environment and measure the resulting performance of new antenna materials.

Benefits achieved through SPRINT included:

  • Has ‘provided positive product development value’ and ‘likely to have aided future development speeds’
  • ‘Much de-risking was achieved’ through the project
  • Although the technology was developed with space in mind, OSS has received additional enquiries about using the antenna for terrestrial use
  • Expected outcome of membrane performance at Q/V band frequency was much higher than expected

Utilising world-class expertise

Michael Lawton, Founder of Oxford Space Systems said: “As a small but rapidly growing team, it’s not possible to have all the skills, experience and facilities needed to undertake our commercially focused work internally. The SPRINT programme has provided essential support, to enable us to engage with the world-class expertise of the University of Surrey and thus ensure that our satellite antennas and structures can take a lead position on the global stage.

“Through SPRINT, we’ve been able to access key University of Surrey facilities and areas of expertise across multiple departments; including labs in the Physics department to determine the thermomechanical properties of the resins, the Surrey Space Centre to do the thermal cycling tests and the Centre for Engineering Materials and Structures for the material characterisation.

“The scope of the activity in the SPRINT project was to demonstrate the potential of reinforced carbon fibre composites when manufactured as a reflective surface for deployable space antennas operating at high frequency (Ka-band). A Carbon-Fibre Reinforced Structure (CFRS) breadboard was manufactured, subjected to RF range testing and thermally cycled under static conditions.

“The manufacturing strategy and foldability was successfully demonstrated. Following this, determination of the two most relevant properties of the breadboard were analysed: radio frequency (RF) characteristics and thermal properties. The thermomechanical analysis performed at coupon level shows that carbon veil laminates are more resistant to thermally induced delamination. The curing study presents the optimal curing temperature for the carbon/polymer composites.”

University provides key expertise for successful conclusion

Michael Loweth continued: “This SPRINT project was able to achieve all of its original aims. OSS managed to demonstrate foldability of the reflective surface as well as determine its RF and thermal properties.

“Working with the University of Surrey allowed us to employ expertise in a niche technical area to analyse the effects of a space environment on composite materials.

“Finally, access to the University’s test facilities allowed OSS to effectively carry out all of the relevant testing for the project.

“OSS will use the results gained from of our collaboration with the University of Surrey and apply them to the manufacturing of an engineering qualification model (EQM). This qualified space antenna will then form the basis for a flight unit, which will be placed into orbit.”

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